Marlowe’s work and achievement guided and inspired Shakespeare. And J.A. Symonds justly remarks: “What Shakespeare would have been without Marlowe, cannot even be surmised. What alone is obvious to every student is that Shakespeare designed from the first to tread in Marlowe’s footsteps, that Shakespeare at the last completed and developed to the utmost that national embryo of art which Marlowe drew forth from the womb of darkness, anarchy and incoherence.”
Introduction: Influence of Marlowe
There is hardly anyone who will dispute Shakespeare’s great indebtedness of Marlowe, ‘the Morning Star of English drama.’ It was Marlowe, more than any other, who performed the great task of drawing English drama from the old rut of Morality and rambling Interlude. And it was also Marlowe who broke new ground and paved the way for Elizabethan dramatists and the genius of Shakespeare.
It is quite evident that in the beginning of his career Marlowe’s influence on Shakespeare was quite considerable. Shakespeare’s Richard II, Richard III and Merchant of Venice reveal notable similarity to Marlowe’s Edward II and the Jew of Malta. Shakespeare must have remembered Barabas of the Jew of Malta while creating the unforgettable character of Shylock the Jew. He also must have remembered Marlowe’s Hero and Leander as he quoted that famous line: “Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?” in his As You Like It. And it was really a great tribute from Shakespeare to Marlowe when he addressed him as ‘Dead Shepherd.’ As regards Shakespeare’s Richard II it can be proved from internal evidence that the above play is modelled on Edward II or Marlowe.
One of the greatest contributions of Marlowe to Elizabethan drama was his blank verse. At one stroke Marlowe’s genius freed the blank verse of his predecessors from the fetters of formalism, regularity and conventional restrictions and thus paved the way for Shakespeare. So it was Marlowe who first gave British drama a powerful medium of expression through the ‘Mighty line’ of his flexible blank verse and left it for Shakespeare’s inimitable genius to purify, to perfect and ‘to play upon its hundred stops.’
Difference in Personality and Genius
The comparison and their influence upon each other may not be taken too far, as both Marlowe and Shakespeare differ greatly from each other in their personality, mental make-up as well as in their genius. Marlowe was one of the great University Wits with his wide scholarship and classical learning. He was greatly influenced by the Renaissance spirit and the ideas of Machiavelli. In personal life he was Bohemian and boisterous. On the contrary, Shakespeare was ‘self-schooled, self-sensed, self-secured.’ He was very little affected by the current ideals and philosophic ideas of the time. So it was his personal observation and experience that helped him to understand human nature and the objective world of reality. Shakespeare’s vision was never coloured like that of Marlowe. Keeping all these in view we may now take up the different aspects of their drama and make an attempt to compare Marlowe and Shakespeare as the writers of tragedy.
Tragic Hero and Characterisation
After a close and critical study of Marlowe’s dramas we are convinced that his true conception of tragic hero alongwith his art of characterisation was of greatest significance for the development of drama on right lines. It was he who was the first playwright in England to realise that tragic action must issue from and be reflected in character. In fact, before Marlowe there was no hero in the conventional sense in the pre-Elizabethan days. The first similarity that strikes us is that both Marlowe and Shakespeare created their tragic heroes mainly following the Aristotelian conception of a tragic hero. Thus, we find that Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, like those of Marlovian heroes have some inherent tragic flaw in their character—the flaw that ultimately brings about their fall. Like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Faustus, Barabas and Edward II, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear also have their inherent defects that brings about their fall, and the fall also produces mingled feelings of pity and fear. But there is some basic difference also. Shakespeare by introducing the device of the supernatural deepens the sense of mystery, e.g. the witches in Macbeth or the ghosts in Hamlet. But in the case of Marlowe’s tragedies there are no such mysteries and one can easily follow the course of events and foresee the tragic doom without any difficulty. Another point of difference is that unlike Shakespeare’s heroes, Marlowe’s heroes are the reflection of his personality. Marlowe projected himself into his titanic heroes. But Shakespeare’s art was the art of self-effacement.
As regards characterisation Marlowe exercised very little influence on Shakespeare. But the depiction of internal or spiritual conflict in the mind of the hero, as we find in the case of Doctor Faustus, profoundly influenced Elizabethan drama. In the art of characterisation, Shakespeare was much more superior to Marlowe. His Hamlet and Macbeth are far more well-delineated characters than those of Marlowe. And then there is almost a complete dearth of secondary characters like Horatio, Banquo or Kent to stand as a foil to the central figure of the drama. And Allardyce Nicoll is quite just in his remark, when he says: “All his heroes by their greatness stand alone.” Then excepting a few sketchy or shadowy figures we hardly come across real female characters in Marlowe’s tragedies. But from Shakespeare we get a galaxy of great women—Cleopatra, Desdemona, Lady Macbeth and others. The genius of Shakespeare could create a variety of characters representing all walks of life, even a porter or an interesting grave digger.
Structure and Element of Humour
As far as plot construction is concerned all Marlowe’s great plays, with the exception of Edward II to some extent, suffer from great technical defects. In his plays the heroes tower so much above the minor characters that they pale into insignificance. And then there are no sub-plots in Marlovian dramas to intensify or enrich the meaning of the main plot by way of sharp contrast or close affinity. In three of his great tragedies we find a single track of development of the plot and hence there is no scope for revealing life in its different shades, in its motley colours. Nicoll has rightly remarked: “In structure, we see that all Marlowe’s plays are faulty… Tamburlaine has no unity except such as lies in the presence of the hero; Doctor Faustus is largely a collection of heterogeneous scenes, loosely pinned together, The Jew of Malta opens well, but sinks into mediocrity toward the middle and the close.”
Then, in general comic scenes in Marlowe’s tragedies, specially in Doctor Faustus, have very little warmth or genuine humour; they never form a part of the organic whole. Such scenes of Marlowe hardly bring any comic relief in his tense and very serious tragedies. Such scenes are generally very low and cheap, often full of puerile pranks and coarse buffoonery. Hence, some of the eminent critics opine that they are interpolations and not from the pen of a genius like Marlowe. Any way it seems Marlowe badly lacked in the divine gift of humour. Shakespeare possessed this gift of humour. Hence, from his pen we get wonderful examples of comic relief in the porter scene in Macbeth or the grave-digger scene in Hamlet.
F.S. Boas has given us a very illuminating passage comparing Shakespeare and his great predecessors as writers of tragedy and we may conclude by quoting his famous lines:
“Christopher Marlowe is one of the most fascinating figures in our own, or indeed, in any literature. In the temple of poetic fame the highest places are sacred to genius that has mounted securely to its meridian splendour, to Homer, Dante and Shakespeare. But seats only lower than these, and hallowed with perhaps richer offerings of human sympathy and love, are granted to genius dead ere its time, cut down in the freshness of its morning radiance. It is here that Marlowe is to be sought, side by side with Collins and Shelley and Keats. What the world has lost by the untimely close of his career we cannot know; but we do know that, even had he lived, he could never have been ‘another Shakespeare.’ For nature so lavish to him in other ways, had entirely withheld from him the priceless gift of humour, and the faculty of interpreting commonplace human experience. He never learnt the secrets of woman’s heart, and he knew of no love lifted above the level of sense. Between him and his mighty successor there is, and there must always have been, an impassable gulf. Marlowe is the rapturous lyricist of limitless desire, Shakespeare the majestic spokesman of inexpressible moral law.”